We are pleased to present the first issue of Ytori (pronounced ee-TOR-ee), the magazine of the University of Florida College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This publication opens a new chapter in our communications with our alumni, students, staff, and friends of the college.

We also recognize our University of Florida home through the title of our new magazine: a means alligator in the Timucuan language. The Timucua were a comparatively large indigenous group, containing between 50,000 and 200,000 people, who moved into north-central and northeast Florida as early as 1100 CE. Their language is preserved in Spanish missionary texts, whose translations allow scholars such as UF’s Professor of Anthropology Aaron Broadwell to reconstruct both the grammar and lexicon of the language. Professor Broadwell’s project has attracted the interest of many students, who are in turn further expanding our knowledge of the language as caretakers of this important part of the history of our region.

This project shows how, through careful textual analysis, the humanities can enrich our understanding of our own culture and history, an undertaking every bit as important as the work of our researchers who are making breakthrough discoveries in science and technology.

As you read Ytori, you will become aware of the many fields in which our faculty and students are contributing to the future well-being of our nation and our world. Our goal is to present the best of our college in an entertaining and informative publication. In addition to this print version, the magazine also will be available through the UF CLAS mobile app and on the college website.
Finally, I thank all of the authors, editors, writers, photographers, and designers who have brought this project to fruition.

With best regards,

David E. Richardson
Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Geologist Stephanie James applies a novel technique to understand permafrost thaw.

By Rachel Wayne

Sitting on a sun-drenched picnic table outside the Hub at the University of Florida, Stephanie James PhD’17 recalls the more pleasant summers she’s spent in Alaska. At the tail end of the hottest summer on record, James discusses how her PhD research on seismic waves can promote understanding of permafrost thaw. Her unique application of seismometry in shallow depths has been the cornerstone of her two PhD projects in the Department of Geological Sciences and two research internships with Sandia National Laboratory.

Geologists are often misperceived as scientists with impressive rock collections. As much as James appreciates a fine schist, she is the type of geologist who studies contemporary changes in the subterranean world as they relate to seasons and overall climate change. To understand these dynamics, she measures the energy of naturally generated, high-frequency seismic waves that travel downward through the earth.

Stephanie JamesStephanie James

“We could monitor active layer dynamics and see if the active layer is getting thicker with time, which means permafrost is thawing. This can lead to breaks in infrastructure and changes in groundwater flow patterns, as well as exacerbate climate change.”

James’ first project at UF was a pioneering effort to use ambient noise, from traffic, construction, and other human activities, to create images of the Florida aquifers using these seismic waves. This research used “a novel technique that’s never been tried at this shallow depth for imaging aquifers,” she says. Usually, destructive techniques such as explosions are needed to produce acoustic waves for this type of measurement.

Seismic waves change velocity as they move through underground structures, and that change can be measured by seismometers. Geologists use those measurements to map everything from aquifers to mountains to get a better picture of what’s underneath. If that picture changes, it could have above-ground ramifications. Major shifts in the solidity of the underground cause subsidence, which can devastate the structures built atop it. For example, as groundwater passes through and erodes the limestone that composes most of Florida, it alters the composition of the aquifer. Thus, changes in groundwater flow contribute to the development of sinkholes.

James’ shallow-depth seismometry of ambient noise also works in a very different landscape — the Alaskan tundra. Permafrost is permanently frozen sediment and water that forms a substantial portion of the topography of the Earth’s colder regions. The upper layer of the Alaskan tundra thaws to a certain degree every summer. For James’ primary PhD project, she’s examining whether changes in this “active layer” can be reliably measured using seismic waves. However, as global temperatures rise, the lower layers of true permafrost are thawing as well. James’ most recent project targets this phenomenon directly. “We could monitor active layer dynamics and see if the active layer is getting thicker with time, which means permafrost is thawing. This can lead to breaks in infrastructure — roads, pipelines — and changes in groundwater flow patterns, as well as exacerbate climate change,” she says. In other words, in areas with permafrost, subsidence can cause a house to end up slanted, or, more seriously, trigger rockslides, and the release of carbon stored in previously frozen permafrost may contribute to the greenhouse effect.

Through her first internship at Sandia National Laboratory, a key environmental research outlet for the US Department of Energy, she’s applying her technique to two years of ambient noise data to analyze and predict changes in subterranean structures due to seasonal thaw of the sediment above the permafrost. In her second internship, she’s focusing on permafrost thaw related to global warming.

James’ research in Alaska aims to discover “where it’s thawing, how fast it’s thawing, and how best to measure it.” She has three seismometer stations set up around a controlled thaw site in Fairbanks. Because the composition of the earth has slightly changed, the waves pass through it at different velocities depending on how much of the permafrost is thawed. “The waves move faster in the winter when the ground is fully frozen and slower when the active layer is thawed in the summer,” she explains. “A deeper thaw would produce a notable change in seismic waves.” In the long game of global warming, she’s looking for “changes in the velocity of scattered waves across time.” By modeling those changes with seismic waves, she and her colleagues at Sandia hope to be able to predict the endgame and its environmental effects.

James’s passion for geology evolved from her childhood interest in paleontology. She started her higher education at Colorado State University, where she double-majored in geology and zoology. “I fell in love with geology,” she says. “I loved hydrology and geophysics, and I’d always liked math.” She appreciates the balance between traveling to the field site and analyzing data in her office. Appropriately, her extracurricular activities of choice involve quality time spent with the earth; she loves hiking and camping, and she recently visited the Grand Canyon for the first time. Her on-campus life includes her presidency of UF’s chapter of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG), which hosts “Bad Science Movie Nights,” the first of which featured the rare disaster movie with a geologist hero, 2003’s The Core. “Any scientist character in any movie just knows everything,” she says with a laugh.

Perhaps the issue with popular conceptions of scientists is that the range of each field is largely cut down to what suits the story. Geology is a lot more than the study of rocks; the breadth of research topics actually undertaken by geologists is comparable in size to a mountain range. A deep understanding of the interactions among rocks, soil, water, and trees is crucial to sustainable engineering, environmental protection, and disaster prevention. With two internships under her belt, James is primed for an eventual job at Sandia or another such laboratory, or, she says, with the United States Geological Survey. Her efforts to study the world below may help save the tundra — and, perhaps, show the world what a real geologist hero looks like.

UF professor publishes first-ever medieval graphic history.

Nina Caputo, an associate professor in history, collaborated with illustrator Liz Clarke to create the first medieval graphic history.

The fourth in a series of graphic histories published by Oxford University Press, Debating Truth: The Barcelona Disputation of 1263, uses this novel approach to present a medieval public debate about the Messiah from both Jewish and Christian perspectives.

“A theological disputation in comic form might seem improbable,” remarks Caputo, but she is confident that it will be effective. Students who saw the book in an early test-run in a colleague’s class expressed excitement about this innovative way to learn about history. The storyline comes from the historical records of the disputation between Rabbi Moses ben Nahman and Friar Paul, a convert from Judaism to Christianity.

Caputo, who wrote the text, worked closely with Clarke to make the captivating graphic representations of people and places historically accurate as well. The images shown here demonstrate how comics will bring history to life for students. The volume also contains translations of historical documents, historical essays, and bibliography and questions for further study.

Grab a pencil and put on your math hat


Question 1

A dog park is a square field a meters on a side. Four dogs are standing on each of the four corners. At the same instant, all four dogs begin to chase the dog which is simultaneously departing from the corner to their left. What distance does each dog run before they all collide in the center?
(a) a2 meters (b) a meters (c) a√2 meters

Question 2

Find the area of the octagon shown below.
(a) 25 (b) 12 + 13√3 (c) 13 + 12√2

Question 3

Person A has six fair coins, and Person B has five fair coins. Both players flip all their coins, and Person A wins only if he or she flips more heads than Person B; otherwise B wins. What is the probability that A wins?
(a) 1/2 (b) 1/4 (c) 1/64

Question 4

Find the exact value of


Question 1.

It is possible to solve this using calculus to see that the path taken by each dog, in polar coordinates, is given by r = aexp(-θ). Integrating this from 0 to infinity yields answer (b) a meters. A more intuitive answer is given by reasoning as follows. Attach a video camera to one dog’s head. The dog it is chasing will always appear in the center of the frame and get closer over time. But this film cannot be distinguished from another film, namely the one where the dog being pursued simply stands still in its corner while the chaser runs toward it. The distance traveled is thus a meters.

Question 2.

Simple geometry, using properties of the missing right triangles on the four corners, shows that the answer is (c) 13 + 12√2

Question 3.

The answer is (a) 1/2. To see this, imagine that A and B each toss 5 coins. There is a certain probability p that A is ahead and by symmetry the same probability p that B is ahead. So the probability they are tied after 5 tosses is 1-2p. Thus the probability that A wins is the sum of the probability that A is ahead after 5 tosses plus the probability that they are tied after 5 tosses and A wins on the 6th toss:
p + ½(1-2p) = 1/2.


If we call the answer L, then we must have the equation L2 = 3 + L. Solving this for L, we get
L = (1+√13)/2

Congratulating and celebrating faculty and student achievement.

Daniel Aldridge ’16, Neuroscience, and Nicholas Pasternack ’16, Immunology

  • 2016 Frost Scholarship for Master’s study at the University of Oxford

Center for European Studies

  • 2016 National Endowment for the Humanities grant for “Dialogues on the Experiences of War”

George Christou, Chemistry

  • 2016 Nyholm Prize in Inorganic Chemistry
  • 2016 Fellow of the American Chemistry Society
  • 2016 Southern Chemist Award from the American Chemical Society

Pamela K. Gilbert, English

  • 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship

Barbara Mennel, English: Film Studies and Languages, Literatures, and Cultures

  • 2016 Marie Skłodowaska-Curie FCFP Senior Fellowship

Brent Sumerlin, Chemistry

  • 2016 Hanwha-Total IUPAC Young Scientist Award from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry

Robert Walker, Geography, Center for Latin American Studies, with Yankuic Galvan-Miyoshi, postdoctoral researcher at UF

  • $375,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Geography and Spatial Sciences program in 2016

Luise White, History and Center for African Studies

  • 2016 National Humanities Center Fellowship

UF’s Gillian Lord conducts the first study comparing learning Spanish in the classroom and from the popular language program.

By Rachel Wayne

If you want to learn a foreign language, high school and college can provide an excellent opportunity to do so. However, even in an increasingly global society, enrollment in college language courses is declining nationwide, while the marketing of the popular language software Rosetta Stone, and others like it, is increasing. Rosetta Stone launched in 1992, but until UF Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Studies Gillian Lord conducted a study of the effectiveness of Rosetta Stone comparing it to in-classroom experience in 2013, no such evaluation had been carried out. So, to continue the question that Lord says she gets a lot, “Does Rosetta Stone work?”

Between Rosetta Stone — named after an ancient Egyptian artifact that delivered a decree from Ptolemy V in three languages — and the recent release of Waverly Labs’ The Pilot, a “real life Babelfish in your ear,” instant gratification for communicating between languages is clearly desirable. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that any standalone language program can meaningfully contribute to second language acquisition — or, people argue, there’s no need to learn other languages if it can be instantly translated. Of course, anyone who’s played with Google Translate has seen how ill-equipped computer algorithms are to render comprehensible speech — or art. Try entering a Shakespearean sonnet into it.

Yet the appeal of a computer program to replace human teaching of languages is very strong for some decision-makers. “K-12 school districts are literally disbanding their language departments and purchasing [Rosetta Stone] licenses,” says Lord. “And even some universities are tempted to try to reach the same outcomes with a computer program as they would get with teaching classes.”

They’ve certainly fallen for Rosetta Stone’s multimillion-dollar advertising campaign: Rosetta Stone promises to be the “fastest way to learn a language — guaranteed.” Yet anyone who’s traveled to a foreign country after learning a handful of words and phrases can attest to how limiting vocabulary-based learning is. For example, one could look up the Spanish words for “how much does it cost” and end up saying, “cuanto es lo costo.” Yet the appropriate phrase is, “¿cuánto vale?” Of course, Rosetta Stone helps second-language learners with the major hurdle of memorizing a large amount of vocabulary that native speakers pick up as children, when their sponge-like brains pick up the words they hear every day.

“We, as a country, do not tend to value the early instruction of language,” says Lord. Indeed, early childhood language education is often limited to numbers and the phrases for “hello” and “goodbye,” if they even get that. Most public schools in Alachua County, for example, do not begin world language instruction in public schools until the 8th grade. So, unless children are raised in multilingual households or are able to attend dual-language immersion schools, they are at an immense disadvantage when they attempt to learn a new language later on in life, after what most linguists accept as the “critical” or “sensitive” period for language learning ends around puberty.

closeup of Gillian Lord Gillian Lord

“If you asked speakers of different languages to bring up a mental image of ‘bread,’ the results would likely be very different from culture to culture, ranging from Wonder Bread loaves to a French baguette.”

It’s understandable to want to catch up if you’ve missed that short window. However, memorization of vocabulary is just that. Observes Lord, “Everyone has heard of Rosetta Stone, and their marketing is so powerful and omnipresent that everyone has come to just assume that they are indeed as effective as they say they are.” According to Lord, Rosetta Stone relies on a fallacy: that one language simply translates to another. Monolingual speakers tend to assume that words have an inherent meaning; learning a second language seems to be a process of translating the “real” words into a “foreign” word. As many pundits demonstrate, there is a tendency to think that there is a “real” language that stands above others. This illusion stems from the brain’s wiring of words, which are symbols, to perception of objects, feelings, and experiences. A large part of language education is to get students to reconsider why they use the words they do. “Think of a word like ‘bread,’” advises Lord. “If you asked speakers of different languages to bring up a mental image of ‘bread,’ the results would likely be very different from speaker to speaker and culture to culture, ranging from Wonder Bread loaves to a French baguette.”

In her study, which was published in 2015 in the Modern Language Journal, Lord focused on acquisition of the Spanish language. She compared the perceived benefits, language proficiency, and conversational fluency of native English-speaking students in three groups: a typical Beginning Spanish class on campus, a class that also used Rosetta Stone instead of their regular textbook, and a group of students only using Rosetta Stone, with no required class attendance. She found that although many students liked the “self-teaching” aspect of Rosetta Stone, students using Rosetta Stone were less able to communicate at the end of the semester, having to ask for more clarification or explanation and needing to resort to English to get their point across.

Remarking on these preliminary findings, Lord says, “What language instructors know, but standalone companies fail to realize, is that in our classes, regardless of delivery medium, we teach our students much more than the simple words and phrases offered by a self-paced standalone experience. Not only do we teach culture and pragmatics, which Rosetta Stone does not even attempt to include, but we also provide our students with an understanding of the elements of successful negotiation of meaning, with strategies to assist in real-life communication and breakdowns thereof, and, crucially, how to put all those words and phrases together to create new meaning. Language is so much more than isolated words, and the ability to put them together, to know how to use language — and how to learn language — are invaluable aspects of the learning process.”

The Rosetta Stone website’s FAQ includes the question “Does it work?” Their response is that it does, and that they have helped people discover a new language. Based on Lord’s findings, it seems that discovering, rather than learning language, may be a more accurate assessment of the program’s abilities.

UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute (EPI) is on the front lines of defense against Zika, which has traveled through Central America into the United States, with the first Florida cases in July 2016.

EPI researchers include UF biology professor Derek Cummings, who with research assistant Kyra Grantz collaborated on an international project studying the genetics of the Zika virus, and geography professor Sadie Ryan, who studies the ecology of the mosquitoes that transmit Zika. Following is a shortlist of what we know about Zika, with crucial input from EPI.

  1. Zika is not a new species, but it is new to the Americas and is becoming endemic to Central and South America. Its origins are in the Zika forest of Uganda.
  2. Zika is a flavivirus, related to dengue and West Nile. Flaviviruses are typically spread through a vector, i.e. an uninfected species that transmits the virus from one host to another, usually mosquitoes, ticks, or other blood-sucking arthropods.
  3. Flaviviruses may make infected people more susceptible to other flaviviruses or worsen their symptoms and side effects.
  4. Flaviviruses often cause brain and nerve complications. Zika shows few symptoms in the infected, but raises the risk for Guillian-Barre syndrome, a neurological disease, by 10 times.
  5. Pregnant women infected with Zika may pass it on to their fetuses, causing microcephaly at a risk rate of 20 to 30 percent. Microcephaly is the only birth defect caused by a mosquito-borne disease and is characterized by an undersized brain, usually accompanied by poor motor function and speech, seizures, and intellectual disability. There is no cure.
  6. Only one in five infected people will experience symptoms, which may include rash, joint pain and body ache, headache, conjunctivitis and eye pain, vomiting, and mild fever. People with these symptoms who have recently traveled to Central and South America or have been in intimate contact with someone who has should seek medical assistance.
  7. Zika may be spread among humans through sexual contact, and it can survive in semen for six months. Both strains of Zika may spread among non-human primates and may be passed from non-human primates to humans. There is no evidence that other animal groups (e.g. cats and dogs) may pass Zika to humans.
  8. Urbanization and globalization are major factors in pandemics, as mosquito breeding grounds multiply and people travel over greater distances. Removal of standing water, wearing of protective clothing, and regular use of insect repellant are the best methods of personal protection.
  9. Zika is spread by females of two species of mosquitoes:
  10. Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. A. aegypti is the primary vector and easily breeds in water-storage containers of any kind.
  11. As of press time, there are 3,951 travel-related cases in US; in Florida, 708 travel-related cases and 139 locally acquired cases.

Visit the Miami Herald’s Daily Zika Tracker

This Gator hits the books on the film set

Taylor Rouviere ’18 is a biology and psychology double major who plans to become a doctor. What sets her apart from her fellow pre-med students is that she does much of her studying from a film set. Rouviere is a recurring cast member of the Netflix original series Bloodline set and shot in the Florida Keys. She made time out of her busy schedule to chat with us about what it’s like to be a Gator and an actor.

Taylor Rouviere in front of backdrop reading "Netflix" and "Bloodline"Taylor Rouviere attends the Season 2 premiere of the Netflix original series, Bloodline, at Landmark Regent Theatre on Tuesday, May 24, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Steve Cohn/Invision for Netflix/AP Images)


“[Psychology] has enabled me to read the scripts in a different way since I now have a better understanding of why certain actions result in certain types of reactions.”

How do you feel your psychology studies affect or inform your acting, and vice versa?

Learning about how different people act in certain situations has enabled me to read the scripts in a different way since I now have a better understanding of why certain actions result in certain types of reactions.

Considering your academic goals, would you like to act on a medical drama?

Absolutely. I actually just binge-watched most of Grey’s Anatomy this summer, and it would be so fun to be able to do the two things that I love all at once. Plus, it would be a really unique way to learn a lot about medicine rather than just reading everything from a book.

As someone with a busy and exciting life, how do manage your time and energy in balancing your studies with your work on Bloodline?

I spend a lot of time studying while traveling and on set, and when I’m in Gainesville, I try my best to be diligent about my schoolwork and spend a great deal of time at the library. I also have really great professors and friends who help me out when I miss class.

Which of your celebrity co-stars were you most excited to meet/work with?

I grew up watching so many of the shows and movies that they were all in, such as Carrie, Scooby Doo, Legally Blonde, Friday Night Lights, The Dark Knight Rises, Wicked, etc., that it was just so overwhelming — in a good way! — to meet everyone at once.

– Rachel Wayne

By Rachel Wayne

With considerable involvement of UF researchers, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, has detected two “chirps” of gravitational waves — a cute phrase for an epic cosmic event, the merger and collapse of two black holes.

The chirps are the first time scientists have detected gravitational waves and give compelling evidence in support of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and the discovery has established gravitational astronomy as an exciting new field of study.


Professors Guido Mueller and Bernard Whiting with a scaled-down version of the LIGO optics.
Professors Guido Mueller and Bernard Whiting with a scaled-down version of the LIGO optics. John Jernigan


The general theory of relativity posits that gravity moves at the speed of light (671 million miles per hour), disturbing the fabric of space-time. Distortions in this fabric are caused by immense gravitational force such as that created by a black hole. Einstein proposed that when a large mass, such as a star, accelerates, it generates gravitational fields that are time-dependent and convert to wave energy that travels at the speed of light. A black hole, or a collapsed star, would generate an enormous amount of energy that would warp space-time. Until now, this phenomenon has been in the realm of theoretical physics and is the basis of time travel in films such as Back to the Future and Interstellar. LIGO’s research isn’t intended to help develop time travel, though; gravitational astronomers seek answers about the composition of the universe. “Imagine you live in a house, but you don’t know what all is in the house,” says UF physics professor Guenakh Mitselmakher, the principal investigator of the UF LIGO group who co-created the algorithm used by LIGO for the first detection. “Once you’ll explore, you’ll find something useful — ways to survive difficult situations. The universe is our house. We must go learn about our house.”


aerial view of large building with extended wings
An aerial view of Advanced LIGO Livingston, La., shows the full length of the interferometer, which features precisely aligned mirrors in the two arms, which are each 4 km. (2.5 mi.) long. Courtsey of Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab


Scientists often use the metaphor of the ripples in a pond after a stone falls in to explain the gravitational effects on space-time. Typically, such ripples have been “seen” through radio astronomy, which measures the electromagnetic spectrum; that is, the stone has fallen into the water far from the shore, and astronomers observe the ripples from afar. For the first time, the ripples of gravitational waves have been detected without a telescope, as they arrived at the edge of the cosmic pond.

LIGO has been met with skepticism since its origins in the late 1980s, but through an international collaboration and the essential contributions of a team of UF physicists, it has finally achieved what seemed impossible: a snapshot of an ancient cosmic event. Advanced LIGO, a recent upgrade of the LIGO instruments in Louisiana and Washington State, had been online for less than 72 hours before the first chirp was detected on September 14, 2015. The team of roughly 1,000 scientists from around the world intended to operate the instruments in “engineering mode” for one month, but the universe had other plans. Two weeks before the “science mode” of the project was set to be deployed, the search algorithm developed at UF discovered a gravitational wave signal detected by twin LIGO interferometers. The finding was so unexpected that only after months of analysis did LIGO researchers confirm the waves produced by two merging black holes; the magnitude was enough that the chirp is very unlikely to be anything else, making the detection a monumental discovery. “I don’t think anything like that exists in any other field. This is a miracle,” says Sergey Klimenko, a professor of physics at UF who has worked to develop the detection algorithm with Mitselmakher since 1997.

The waves arrived at LIGO’s twin detectors within seven-thousandths of a second of each other, just past 4:50 a.m. in Livingston, La., and 2:50 a.m. in Hanford, Wash., showing that the two black holes, 29 and 36 times the mass of our Sun, had merged in a similar time frame after orbiting each other at a speed of approximately 100 orbits per second. While this may seem like current events, cosmically speaking, the collision occurred approximately 1.3 billion years ago.

The interferometer is a humorous yet accurate name: it involves the use of mirrors to split and reunite a laser beam, then reflect it back onto itself, which cancels out the light beam’s waves in a condition known as “anti-phase.” Because gravitational waves distort space, the distance between the mirrors changes, and the light goes out of anti-phase. That interference, however small, can be measured, albeit only after intense efforts to detect a tiny event in an enormous instrument. The LIGO detectors are approximately four kilometers wide, and the laser beams must be perfectly aligned to detect the wobble between the mirrors. It is striking that the mirror displacement caused by gravitational waves is 10,000 times smaller than the size of a proton and yet can be measured, says Klimenko.


The waves arrived within seven-thousandths of a second of each other … showing that the two black holes, 29 and 36 times the mass of our sun, had merged at a speed of 100 orbits per second.


Klimenko was brought onboard by Mitselmakher, who arrived at UF in 1995 to work in high energy physics. In 1995, David Tanner, along with fellow physics professors Bernard Whiting and David Reitze, responded to a call from Mitselmakher to join a LIGO research consortium led by Caltech and MIT. Guido Mueller joined the project in 1998. Funded by the consortium, UF was tasked with developing the input optics system for the interferometer (the largest funded experiment to date) and creating the crucial algorithm to interpret the signals it would receive. The team says they expected to first detect gravitational waves from a neutron star collision — the aftermath of a supernova. As the field was still theoretical at that time, “the challenge was to design an algorithm that can detect absolutely anything,” notes Mitselmakher. “It’s like looking for a black cat in a black room.” Laughs Tanner, “You just know it’s warm and fuzzy and may scratch.”


scientist wearing mask and goggles works with bright device
A scientist works with a 40-kilogram test mass in the Livingston, La., interferometer’s core optics. The test mass is designed to reduce scattering of laser beam to ensure accurate measurement. Courtsey of Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab


It turned out that the room was full of cats: LIGO’s twin detectors heard a second chirp on December 26, 2015; another pair of black holes had combined, creating a mass 21 times that of our sun and warping space-time. One sun’s worth of mass was converted into energy and carried away by gravitational waves, which reached Earth over a distance-time of 1.4 billion light-years. Analysis of the signal showed that the pair of black holes had orbited each other for years, producing the waves in the last 55 orbits before their epic merger. In other words, the experience of time and space on Earth is infinitesimal compared with the cosmic magnitude of black hole formation and collision. What the discovery confirms is that gravity isn’t just that thing that keeps your things on the table. It’s a curvature in space-time, and movement of a celestial body creates that curvature if it has enough mass. It’s the difference between a mouse running around a trampoline and a human doing the same thing.

“This second detection confirms our expectations that binary black holes are abundant in the universe, and LIGO will see many more in the future,” says Klimenko. The idea that black holes are a common feature of the cosmos is supported by Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the model of the universe as a shifting, expanding sphere. An infinite, static universe is not supported by astronomical evidence (and doesn’t allow for time travel either). Astrophysicists have largely accepted the Big Bang Theory, a misnomer as the model actually describes a convergence of energy so intense that it created matter.

The Big Bang Theory is a comprehensive explanation of the expanding universe and is well backed by evidence from radio astronomy, but scientists have not yet been able to analyze data from the Big Bang itself. Whiting, who has been at UF since 1989, hopes to detect “relic” gravitational waves from the event; this gravitational background is so weak, it requires him to essentially “distinguish noise from noise.” The Big Bang is theorized to have occurred 13.8 billion years ago; in terms of human time, the Big Bang was the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve, and the advent of modern humans is six minutes before the following New Year’s Day.


cosmic calendar
Credit: Wikimedia


That six minutes has been filled with humans pondering the night sky: “Astronomy has existed as long as people have,” says Mitselmakher, “and has exploded in the last 50 years.” The detection of gravitational waves heralds a new era of multi-messenger astronomy: a confluence of methods and instruments that observes these cosmic events from multiple perspectives.

Indeed, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which runs the project, is an international and interdisciplinary group of almost 1,000 scientists, including 26 from UF. “It’s amazing that Reitze was able to coordinate all these people,” says Mueller. “Many of us are not astrophysicists. The strength of the LIGO collaboration is its various enterprises.” Because multiple detections of gravitational waves are the only way to confirm the signal, data is corroborated with that of the Virgo Collaboration, a similar project in Europe. As other detectors set up shop, scientists anticipate a steady stream of discoveries through gravitational astronomy. Interferometers around the globe “may give us triggers to look at our data,” says Tanner. UF’s algorithm was 15 years in the making, says Mitselmakher, and allowed LIGO the unique opportunity to identify the gravitational waves, which arrived at other instruments that did not have sufficient algorithms to pick it up. The program that first detected the waves seen in September 2015, Coherent WaveBurst, was developed in 2004 by the UF LIGO group, a team of faculty, graduate students, and postdocs, and has since undergone continual updating and improvement.


The Big Bang is theorized to have occurred 13.8 billion years ago; in terms of human time, the Big Bang was the ball dropping on new year’s, and the advent of modern humans is six minutes before the following new year’s.


Although LIGO was constructed and is operated by scientists at Caltech and MIT, UF has had an instrumental role (pun intended) in the latest stage, the Advanced LIGO project. From 1996 to present, UF has engineered the “input optics” system, which takes the light from the laser conditions and expands the beam size, and delivers it to the main interferometer, for all of LIGO’s projects. After leading UF’s input optics (IO) program beginning in 1996, Reitze relocated to Caltech, where he currently serves as executive director of LIGO. “The IO was in such a good shape and the entire IO team at UF was so strong that finishing the $5 million project turned out to be fairly straightforward,” said Mueller, who with Tanner has led the team since Reitze’s transfer to Caltech in 2011. Additional support came through a 17-year umbrella grant from the National Science Foundation. The project is still growing, with a third LIGO detector planned for location in India. In the next five years, LIGO hopes to become sensitive enough to detect individual black holes, not just their mergers. Other gravitational wave detector projects include space-based instruments to detect signals from slower events, such as the acceleration of supermassive black holes. The team’s timeline had anticipated these projects to be rolled out by 2034, but Whiting says that they now may be operational as soon as 2030 or 2029.

“We won’t be there to see it, but will guide others,” says Whiting. That hope is shared by the full LIGO team, who have seen many of their students and postdocs go on to work on gravitational wave detection around the world. It’s an exciting new field of cosmic proportions for young scientists, who must work on international collaborative projects at major laboratories. “The idea of the lone professor sitting in his corner inventing something won’t go away,” says Mitselmakher with a sigh. For the UF LIGO team, this new era of multi-messenger astronomy is a paradigm shift towards the collaborative empowerment of extraordinary scientific discoveries.

So is time travel on the horizon? Unlikely. “Interstellar is close to reality [only] as a good way to introduce people to physics,” says Klimenko. Tanner shakes his head in disagreement, but says he does enjoy science-fiction tales of humanity in the face of eternity, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 novel (adapted to film by Stanley Kubrick) and Time Enough for Love, the 1973 award-winning novel by Robert A. Heinlein. “The general public is more interested in fantasies than precision,” observes Mitselmakher. Those fantasies of time travel and journeys through the galaxies have gripped humanity since its beginnings. And in this latest millisecond of human existence, cosmically speaking, might be its origins of those fantastic journeys. “This is just the beginning,” says Whiting with a smile.

By Steve Orlando

The University of Florida has been involved with LIGO since its inception. That involvement began with an email message sent in October 1995 to the physics faculty by Guenakh Mitselmakher, who had just joined the physics department as a senior professor. The message was about research opportunities in LIGO and was motivated by Mitselmakher’s knowledge of the LIGO project from his work with Barry Barish (then LIGO laboratory director) in high energy physics. A number of faculty responded. The initial group of active participants consisted of Mitselmakher, Bernard Whiting, and physics professors David Reitze and David Tanner. Shortly after this beginning, two other current faculty members joined the UF LIGO group: Sergey Klimenko in 1997 and Guido Mueller in 1998.

Florida’s interest was well timed, as the LIGO Laboratory, the consortium managed by Caltech and MIT, was just beginning to design the initial LIGO detector. There were a number of meetings, conferences and lab visits between UF scientists and LIGO scientists.

A critical meeting took place in February 1996, when Mitselmakher, Reitze, Tanner, and Whiting visited the LIGO laboratory to discuss whether and how UF could contribute to the initial LIGO detectors, then beginning their construction. The outcome of this discussion was that the University of Florida took responsibility for the Input Optics (IO) of LIGO, one of the most complex and diverse systems in the entire interferometer. In doing so, Florida was the first institution outside the original Caltech–MIT collaboration to have an essential role in LIGO.